“Pass or Fail?”

Is earning a belt now a given or is it something to be protected?

Society is changing. This is a given but how does that affect the martial arts? The simple answer is in everyway but more importantly is it positive or negative in how. Lets take a look at just one aspect that in most ways is being affected negatively. The idea of belts as a measurement of rank is a relatively modern one and accredited to Jigoro Kano. The idea was to give us recognition as well as a sense of achievement of where we were on the path. That in its self seems to be positive. Most styles use a ranking system whether its belt, sash, badge or other. This then raises the question of how to award them.

This is one of the major areas where society has indeed influenced the martial arts. Most of us understand the degradation of the level or respect of Black Belt and it’s a point I have covered here previously. However this all begins within the coloured belt ranks and not only the way we award them but how we use this system for the good of the student. The question is should an instructor fail a student for being below par? The answer should be a resounding yes however that point is changing. Let’s look in little more detail at the idea of Pass or Fail.

Psychology tells us that positive reinforcement is better than negative. So that would lead that it is better overall to have students pass belt testing. The attitude becomes one of the calm as students work towards a belt that in some ways is a given. This is simplistic and I have heard the analogy of high school used here, where a student is in school for a set time and graduates as a class. If this idea is used, students that start at the same time should progress together and pass/earn their belts together. There are of course some problems with this as we all know that students don’t indeed have the same skills, desire or attitude, let alone work ethic. But still a regular promoting student is a happy one and many successful schools use this model to ensure a positive training environment and good student numbers. This idea was for a long time a backbone of a management companies success path, 1/3rd of all students should be testing each month.

As society becomes more of a gimme ideal or fast food mentality students expect to dot the I and cross the T to get their belts. There is a simple expectation that if they follow the minimum requirements for belt testing that they will get their belt. How many times have parents been instrumental in assisting instructor’s grade their children? Parent’s join the band wagon here as they too expect that their children will indeed get a new belt when they test. This combination of factors does increase the pressure on the instructor to use the above idea’s to pass more students.

Then why is failing a better way? It is of course a hard path to take and can indeed cost you students. However I have always been a fan of more education and more discipline. As long as students understand why steps are taken, in this case a fail, they are in most cases fine. The idea is simple, you are undertaking a test and as in life we sometimes fail tests. A true martial artist takes a step back reassess the challenge and then conquers it. This approach teaches a better focus, a better attitude and in the end produces a better martial artist. A story I like to use when preparing to fail students is The Apple. When you look at an apple tree you pick the ones that are ripe, you leave the ones that aren’t. Those apples didn’t fail, they weren’t quite ready. A little more time and those apples will be picked as well. Training for a test is the same, sometimes you aren’t quite ready and some extra time is all it takes.

I would say that approximately 20% of students within my Dojang fail testing at one point or another in their progression through the belts and so far 99% have continued. The key has always been to educate that failing is simply another part of the test and another part to work through. As long as students understand this and know that this system is in place from the beginning there are no issues.

So realistically speaking it is still far easier to pass than fail. It makes for less stress, less aggravation and a better atmosphere. But I feel it makes for a lower overall standard and in its way a lessening of what the Martial Arts stands for. Educate students on why belts are something to be earnt and not a give. Why at times they may need to take that one step back to go two forward. A student who can take a fail and then work towards a pass is indeed one destined to become a better martial artist, the one who quits….

Grandmaster Geoff J. Booth